A humanitarian response

Updated February 21, 2020

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WHEN news of a dangerous new virus — now named Covid-19 by the World Health Organisation — first broke, governments around the world rushed to evacuate their citizens from the epicentre of the outbreak in Wuhan, China.

In contrast, Pakistan requested the many hundreds of its citizens studying in Wuhan to stay put until further notice.

Read: Families of Pakistanis stranded in China reject govt briefing, demand students’ return

At the time, it was thought to be the right decision, as little was known about the disease and how it spread, and as the already burdened health facilities here were deemed ill-equipped to treat infected patients, let alone manage a potential outbreak. But many weeks have since passed, with the students and their families growing increasingly anxious, desperately beseeching the government to allow them to return home — only to, at best, receive noncommittal responses or, at worst, have their cries fall on deaf ears.

The situation is not just a health issue but also a humanitarian one. The government must allow these citizens to return home, while simultaneously ensuring that appropriate quarantine protocols are implemented upon their arrival.

China, which has constructed hospitals virtually overnight to manage its outbreak, can even be asked to lend its expertise and support.

Besides, has the government taken serious, substantive steps to ensure treatment of infected patients were the virus to emerge in this country, despite efforts to keep Pakistanis in China at bay?

Nearly all our neighbouring countries have recorded cases of Covid-19. This week, two elderly people in Iran died from the virus. India confirmed three cases in Kerala; all have fully recovered due to timely medical intervention.

Earlier this month, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza said that Pakistan now had the ability to diagnose Covid-19 — so why is the government still dithering? How it plans to address a potential outbreak has not been made clear yet. What is clear, however, is that citizens cannot just be abandoned in a foreign land indefinitely. A plan for their repatriation must be announced soon.

Published in Dawn, February 21st, 2020